|Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae speaks during a meeting with lawmakers at the National Assembly, Monday. Yonhap|
By Kim Se-jeong
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl were never on good terms, but the tension between the two has never been as deep as it is now, according to legal pundits, Tuesday.
Choo lashed out at Yoon, Monday, for refusing to follow her recommendation regarding an investigation into the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a Christian sect, in Daegu amid the COVID-19 outbreak in February.
"If the prosecution had conducted a search of the church, it could have obtained CCTV data which could have helped in getting a list of members visiting the church. Yet, the authorities missed a golden opportunity to obtain critical information and it slowed down their response to the outbreak," Choo said during a meeting with a group of new lawmakers at the National Assembly.
Earlier that day, Choo also wrote on Facebook: "When power is unchecked, it is like a runaway engine. And always, the result is damage to citizens. That's why this administration is stressing prosecutorial reform."
Choo was apparently referring to Yoon for failing to comply with her orders on an old bribery case involving former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook, and another linked to his subordinate, Han Dong-hoon, who is alleged to have conspired with a broadcast journalist to blackmail a businessman to get information about one of President Moon Jae-in's close allies.
Yoon has been quiet about Choo's open criticism, but he has supports in resisting her meddling into the prosecution's activities. Under the law, the chief prosecutor has the right to refuse any minister's recommendation.
Prof. Lee Chang-hyun, who teaches law at Hankook University of Foreign Studies, said "The prosecutors' office has to have independence. But, the minister is trying to interfere excessively."
This makes Yoon a hero among anti-Moon supporters. According to a Realmeter poll Tuesday, people chose Yoon as the third potential presidential candidate representing the opposition party.
At the center of the tension lies the alleged "excessive power" of the prosecution and Moon's determination to reduce this.
For a long time in Korea, prosecutors were privileged and blamed for corruption.
Prosecutorial reform and diluting its power through sharing it with other agencies were Moon's top priorities when he was sworn in as president.
Moon appointed Yoon as chief prosecutor in July last year in accordance with the reform agenda, but Yoon quickly became a headache for the president, as he also investigated corruption in Moon's own close circle.
The prosecutor general ordered an investigation into Cho Kuk, the former Justice Minister and Moon's close aide who spearheaded the prosecutorial reform, over corruption allegations involving his family members ― Cho resigned from the post late last year and his wife and him are currently on trial.
Yoon also ordered an investigation into the 2017 Ulsan mayoral election over Cheong Wa Dae's meddling to save another Moon's close ally.
In response, Moon openly told Yoon to stop being excessively harsh with cases involving his aides, while asking him to look into corruption cases involving officials from those opposed to him.
Replacing Cho in January, new Minister Choo pressed Yoon harder. The minister, against Yoon's wishes, restructured the prosecutor's office and reassigned people ― putting prosecutors who supported her in higher positions.